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Historical Hot Stove
by Bruce Markusen
Previous Columns

Cooperstown Confidential - Regular Season Edition - 06/03/2004

From Pirate Parody to Lumber Company Revival

Daryle Ward is this generation’s Willie Stargell. Jack Wilson is a combination of Gene Alley and Tim Foli, but with a better bat. Rob Mackowiak is Richie Hebner. Craig Wilson is the new Bob Robertson. And Jason Kendall is Manny Sanguillen, only with more talent.

Some of these statements are blatant exaggerations, while others are only slightly legitimate comparisons. The Pirates of 2004 are a far cry from Pittsburgh’s World Championship teams of 1971 and 1979, but for the first time in a long while, the Bucs are giving the city of Pittsburgh some real hope in the form of young, talented players who have futures in the game, unlike the Kevin Youngs and Raul Mondesis of the world.

To some extent, the comparisons of current-day players to Pirate stars of years gone by have some legitimacy, even if only through the images that the players create. Daryle Ward, like Willie Stargell, started his career as an outfielder before settling into a newfound role as the Pirates’ everyday first baseman. Like Starg, Ward is big, left-handed, and powerful, with the same kind of intimidating frame that “Pops” featured during his latter years, when he also doubled as the team’s father figure. Ward will obviously never develop into the Hall of Fame player that Stargell became in the 1970s, but he was once a top-notch prospect who was considered the “next, great left-handed power hitter” for the Astros, something they’d been searching for since John Mayberry’s early days as a prospect. At 28, Ward is still young enough to have Mike Easler’s kind of career, and there’s nothing wrong with a team possessing that kind of building block in trying to assemble a championship contender.

At shortstop, Jack Wilson’s defensive play reminds more than a few Pirate historians of the days of Tim Foli and Gene Alley. Wilson is actually a better shortstop than Foli and might be a better defender than Alley in every way except for the ability to turn double plays. If Wilson can avoid the kind of back problems that derailed Alley’s career and maintain a batting average of .280 or better (no one really expects him to hit .350 all season long), the Pirates might actually have a finer all-around shortstop than Alley—maybe their best since the salad days of Dick Groat.

Like Richie Hebner, Hacking Rob Mackowiak is a defensive liability at third base, but has the same kind of aggressive, left-handed swing that could keep him around for more than a few years as an infield cornerman and outfielder—the kind of supplemental piece that every playoff team needs. The Pirates are still searching for the Jose Pagan counterpart to platoon with Mackowiak, but that’s a lesser concern at a time when there are so few left-handed starting pitchers of any quality.

Of all the principals mentioned in this comparison, the Pirates’ most intriguing player might be Craig Wilson, a deserving favorite in the Sabermetric community who has finally been given a chance to play regularly after several seasons of platooning and super-utilityman status. Although the long-haired Wilson plays a different position (right field and left field) than the close-cropped Bob Robertson (who was primarily a first baseman), there are some similarities. Both have—or in the case of Robertson, had—enormous right-handed power, to the potential tune of 30 home runs a season, while supplying their managers with the flexibility to fill in at other spots in the order. It doesn’t seem like a stretch that Wilson will one day (and perhaps this year) better Robertson’s career high of 27 home runs, while also drawing more walks and giving Lloyd McClendon the added bonus of a third catcher (something that Robertson couldn’t do for Danny Murtaugh or Bill Virdon). The “Blonde Bomber” needs only to avoid the kind of injuries, especially back problems, that sidetracked Robertson, preventing him from becoming the next Ralph Kiner and forcing his departure from Pittsburgh well before the glory year of 1979.

Unlike the other players mentioned, Jason Kendall doesn’t merit being called a developing youngster anymore, but he won’t turn 30 until later this month and has the kind of athletic ability that could give him the longevity of a Craig Biggio. Kendall’s defensive game falls short of Manny Sanguillen in his prime, especially in terms of arm strength, but he sprays singles and doubles with the same proficiency. Plus, his superior power and athleticism could help him make the positional transfer that Sanguillen was unable to do in 1973, when the Pirates asked him to play right field in the aftermath of the death of Roberto Clemente

The images of the 1970s certainly exist with the current crop of Bucs, but that’s not to say that these Pirates are on the verge of World Championship status. They don’t have a corner outfielder of the vintage of Roberto Clemente or Dave Parker (few teams do), at least not until J.J Davis breaks through or Jason Bay lives up to the level of hype he received in San Diego. There’s no one to patrol center field who matches the hitting of Al Oliver or the speed and defense of Omar Moreno. The Pirates also don’t have a second baseman who ranks with Dave Cash, Rennie Stennett, or Phil Garner, though they’re still hoping that Bobby “The King” Hill will become better than league average. Most importantly, the Pittsburgh pitching staff is lacking the types of right-handed hammers that highlighted both the start and finish of the 1970s. Kip Wells might become the next Steve Blass, but there’s no one to fill the Dock Ellis or Bert Blyleven roles, and even less talent to occupy the bottom-of-the-rotation spots. (On the plus side, they may have the new John Candelaria in dynamic left-hander Oliver Perez, who was part of the haul for Brian Giles late last summer.) And no one is confusing the current-day Jose Mesa with palmballing Dave Giusti or submarining Kent Tekulve in their respective primes.

So what does all of this mean? The Pirates, currently toying with the .500 mark, are not going to make the playoffs this season, not in the tough environs of the National League Central. They’re not going to win a World Championship next season, either. Yet, they have a chance, albeit a remote one, of maintaining a .500 record through the remainder of the season. More importantly, they have given Pirate fans a reason other than the wonderful atmosphere of PNC Park to attend games on a regular basis. And that’s a start.

Center Field Circus

Four straight wins have helped soothe some wounds, but observers of the Mets are still scratching their scorecards in disbelief over the lineup that Art Howe used in the finale of a recent series against the Marlins. Wanting to give both Mike Cameron and Cliff Floyd the day off on a hot afternoon in Miami, Howe rather inexplicably placed Shane Spencer in center field, surrounding him with rookie Eric Valent in left and veteran Karim Garcia in right. A capable corner outfielder, Spencer had never before played a major league game in center field, not even in a reserve role; not surprisingly, he made a critical error on a fly ball to left-center field, leading to three unearned runs against Steve Trachsel and contributing directly to an avoidable loss for the Mets. While Howe doesn’t really have a true backup center fielder on his 25-man roster (unless you consider the option of Super Joe McEwing), it would have made far more sense to use Garcia in that role for Sunday’s game. Garcia, who’s a better outfielder than Spencer and features a much stronger arm, has some familiarity with center field, having played a combined 21 games there for the Diamondbacks, Indians, and Yankees. While there’s no guarantee that Garcia would have made that third-inning catch against the Marlins, his experience in center fielder might have given him the necessary level of take-charge aggressiveness that was clearly lacking on the part of Spencer… Howe’s decision to rest two of his starting outfielders on the same day also raises some questions. The two players did collide in the previous game, with Cameron suffering a bruised shoulder. Still, Cameron remained in the game, leading me to believe that he could have played on Sunday. And while it’s true that Cameron’s been buried in an awful hitting slump, it might have been better to wait a game and rest him on a day that the Mets weren’t using a contact pitcher like Steve Trachsel. The decision to sit the brittle Floyd might have been a bit more defensible, since he suffered a bruised quadriceps in the collision and has been the kind of fragile player whose injuries only seem to mount when he is asked to play hurt… The Mets’ recent defensive lapses are a continuation of a season-long theme. They have committed more errors than any other National League team, which was not what general manager Jim Duquette had in mind after the wintertime acquisitions of Cameron and Kaz Matsui. Beyond the physical errors that show in the scorebook, the Mets have serious defensive limitations wherever Mike Piazza plays; at third base, where Ty Wigginton’s lack of range and Todd Zeile’s age continue the call for prospect David Wright; and at second base, where the glove work and range of Jose Reyes remain sorely missed.

Card Corner

Every once in awhile the photographer gets it wrong. That’s what happened with this card (No. 120) featuring pitcher Steve Busby—or whom the photographer thought was Steve Busby—as part of Topps’ eye-catching, multi-colored border set in 1975. In actuality, the pictured player is journeyman catcher Fran Healy, now known as the voice of the New York Mets on their cable television broadcasts. In examining cards from baseball’s past, some of these errors in identification are quite understandable, but this one falls into a more mystifying category. Healy and Busby really didn’t look alike; other than the fact that they are both white, their facial features were completely different circa 1975. Their impact on the field in 1974 was also quite distinct. Healy batted .252 with nine home runs as Kansas City’s relatively light-hitting starting catcher, usually batting in the bottom third of the order. In the meantime, the hard-throwing Busby put together one of the best seasons of his short-lived career, winning a career-high 22 games with a solid 3.39 ERA as the Royals’ ace. The peak of Busby’s season came on June 14, when he no-hit the Milwaukee Brewers and came within a mere walk to George Scott of twirling a perfect game. With his second no-hitter of the last 14 months in the books, Busby seemed destined for Hall of Fame greatness. Unfortunately, he hurt his arm within two years, never won more than six games in a season after 1975, and found himself out of baseball by the end of 1980. Who would have thought that some 20 years later, Healy’s presence as a longtime broadcaster would have made him more of a household name than Busby, who’s become forgotten by the baseball world? Perhaps Busby’s 1975 Topps card was a harbinger of things to come.

Pastime Passings

Doug Pappas (Died on May 20 in Big Bend National Park, Texas; age 42; heat prostration): A controversial but popular writer known for his knowledge of the business side of baseball, Pappas died while hiking in a national park, reportedly passing away from the effects of heat stroke. A longtime lawyer, Pappas gained much of his notoriety for his adversarial relationship with baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, whom he often criticized at his own web site—where he featured a daily weblog—and in published articles about the game’s economics. Pappas also served the Society for American Baseball Research as its pro bono legal counsel while working as the chairman of the organization’s “Business of Baseball” Committee. (He also wrote the committee’s “Around The Horn” newsletter.) In addition to his interests in baseball’s economic side, Pappas’ research expertise included the unrelated area of baseball ejections. Compiling a comprehensive list of ejections, Pappas won the USA Today Baseball Weekly Award for best presentation at the 2000 SABR Convention, as he delivered an in-depth study of the subject.

At the time of his death, Pappas was employed as an attorney at the New York City firm, Mintz and Gold, where he practiced law in the areas of civil and commercial litigation.

Buster Narum (Died on May 17 in Clearwater, Florida; age 63): A veteran of five seasons in the major leagues, Narum pitched for the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Senators, and Chicago White Sox in the 1960s. the right-hander compiled a lifetime record of 14-27 with an ERA of 4.45 and was perhaps best known for being traded from the Orioles to the Senators in a straight-up deal for Lou Piniella. Narum also hit three home runs in 118 major league at-bats.

Moe Burtschy (Died on May 2 in Delhi Township, Ohio; age 82; heart failure): A tall right-hander who pitched in the 1950s, Burtschy played for both the Philadelphia and Kansas City A’s after a stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II. During the war, Burtschy served aboard the famed USS Ticonderoga. Making his debut for Philadelphia in 1950, Burtschy went on to post 10 wins and four saves in 90 major league appearances. He remained with the A’s’ organization until June of 1956, when he was traded to the New York Yankees for Eddie Robinson and Lou Skizas. After his playing days, Burtschy went to work as a freight salesman in the trucking industry.

And Another Thing

A doubleheader of Special Edition Sandlot Stories (the Hall of Fame’s author series) will take place in Cooperstown this Saturday, June 5. At 1:30 p.m., visiting author David J. Kahn discusses his new book, Baseball Crosswords, which offers an array of puzzles for differing levels of fans. After the Bullpen Theater presentation, Kahn will be available to sign and personalize copies of his book. Another veteran author and Hall of Fame favorite, Alan Levy, will discuss his book, Rube Waddell: The Zany, Brilliant Life of a Strikeout Artist, which delves into the colorful life of the Hall of Fame left-hander. After the presentation, which begins at 3:30 p.m in the Bullpen Theater, Levy will sign copies of his book.

Cooperstown Confidential author Bruce Markusen is host of the Hall of Fame Hour, which airs each Thursday at 12 noon Eastern time on MLB.com Radio. He is also the author of three books on baseball, including A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, Roberto Clemente: The Great One, and The Orlando Cepeda Story. A fourth book, Ted Williams: A Biography (Greenwood Press), is scheduled for release in the fall of 2004. Markusen is also available for lectures and presentations on baseball and baseball history. For more information, send an e-mail to bmark@telenet.net.


by Bruce Markusen

 

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